By Connie Llanos, Staff Writer | Los Angeles Daily News | http://bit.ly/n7rvPS
Raquel Gonzales, 17, left, and Abigail Rivas, 16, put together a welcome-back bulletin board in the hall at Daniel Pearl Magnet High School in Van Nuys. (John McCoy/Staff Photographer)
Aug 20, 2011 - When Daniel Pearl Magnet High School opened three years ago in Van Nuys, the journalism-oriented campus got off to a rocky start.
About one-third of its students left during the first year. Some abandoned the school because of its small size, while others fled because of tensions with students and faculty at Birmingham Community Charter High School -- the parent campus sharing space with Pearl.
The small campus has persevered, though, and developed a reputation for strong academic performance, while enrollment this fall is expected to increase by about 30 percent.
No amount of academic achievement can guarantee that Pearl will remain open in the face of districtwide budget cuts, but staff and students remain convinced that their little experiment will continue.
Faculty members Davy Keo, left, and Martin Tate talk about lesson plans with principal Janet Kiddoo at Daniel Pearl Magnet High School in Van Nuys. (John McCoy/Staff Photographer)
"I like to think of us as the tiny school with the mighty heart," said Principal Janet Kiddoo. "We just keep going."
A veteran educator, Kiddoo sees her campus as a proving ground for the benefits of an intimate academic setting.
It has a capacity of 500 students, but had just 313 students last year -- making it one of the district's smallest schools. Some classes have as few as a dozen students and most have no more than 30 -- well below the 40-student classes found at most LAUSD high schools.
Less than a decade ago, converting large high schools into smaller, stand-alone programs like Pearl was a reform being pushed by many respected educators and wealthy philanthropists.
But Pearl was a conversion made out of necessity.
Birmingham opted to become an independent charter, but the decision was controversial and supported by just two-thirds of the school's faculty.
After months of bitter battles, teachers and staff at the magnet program eventually won permission from the district to secede from Birmingham and operate as an independent campus-within-a-campus to preserve their journalism and communications program.
They named the school for Birmingham alumni Daniel Pearl, the Wall Street Journal reporter from Encino who was kidnapped and killed by al-Qaida members in Pakistan in 2002.
Students fled the start-up, however, because they feared Pearl's small size could not provide them a complete high school experience.
Some students who remained at Birmingham also tormented those who transferred to the magnet program.
Diana Ramirez, a senior at Pearl, remembers being called a "maggot" and "magnatron" by teammates and coaches on Birmingham's lacrosse team, which she was still eligible to play on even though the schools had parted ways.
And Raquel Gonzales recalled being asked by a teacher to vacate a bench during a lunch break once because it was "Birmingham" property, and she was no longer a student there.
Pearl last year received its own space in a vacated special education center adjacent to the Birmingham campus, that was shuttered because of budget cuts and low enrollment.
Even with the new space, low enrollment continued to hinder the school, forcing the layoffs of three of its 14 educators.
Despite the struggles, the school has made academic achievements that equal those of larger and more well-established magnet schools in the area.
Pearl saw 94 percent of its sophomores pass the California High School Exit Exam on their first try, one of the best passing rates of any LAUSD high school.
The school also has one of the best records of offering students college prep courses, with 72 percent of all classes meeting university entrance requirements. And this week the school learned that its 80 percent graduation rate is also among the best in the district -- far above the LAUSD average of 56 percent.
Jose Berrios, who has two daughters at Pearl, said the school has other assets that can't be measured by statistics.
"I feel like my daughters are safe here ... like people know who they are, like they care," Berrios said.
Being a small school comes with its drawbacks.
Kiddoo is Daniel Pearl's only administrator, which means she has to handle everything from parent conferences to detentions to budget decisions.
Her only help in the office is from an office clerk and office manager. She has one counselor, a part-time librarian, and a nurse and psychologist one day a week - despite the varied mental and physical needs of teenage students.
A small staff also means teachers have to be flexible, often running two related courses at a time in an effort to give students more options.
Chemistry and physics teacher Stephen Schaffter said he doesn't mind having to multi-task.
"At a small school, you really take pride in your campus and your students," Schaffter said.
"I enjoy getting to know my students well and I like the fact that, through the course of their high school careers, I'll probably have them two or more times as students."
Students also need to be OK with giving up large pep rallies and elaborate dances in a school gym. At Pearl, the library is a former classroom transformed with salvaged shelves found in a storage room and the school's only large meeting space is a small multi-purpose room.
Senior Diana Ramirez said at one point she thought she needed a larger environment to get the full high school experience.
"You know, like you see on TV," she said.
"But in the end I think it was worth it because I really feel like I've grown a new family."